» Writer Appreciation Day 3: Cindy Morrow

This is the next installment of our Writer Appreciation Day series. Started with Amy Keating Rogers and Merriwether Williams, today’s installment continues with Cindy Morrow.

My Little Pony Friendship is Magic is, first and foremost, a comedy, and most of the audience is primarily there to get some good laughs from the adventures of our equine heroines. But anyone who has become a big fan of the program – certainly anyone who would be reading an analysis like this – knows the cast and crew aren’t content to stop there. Put simply, Friendship is Magic attempts to have real heart alongside its comedy: a sincere interest in how this magical world functions, empathy for its characters, and a sustained effort to involve the audience in this process.

Cindy Morrow is a skilled comedic writer, and has done plenty of memorable sequences in that vein. But when you look at her contributions to the program, it’s hard not to peg her biggest talent as being able to get at the very heart of the show. Read on to find out more.

Breaking In

As is common with the Friendship is Magic, Morrow earned most of her career credentials at Cartoon Network. After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts in 1995 (BFA in Film/Character Animation), her earliest notable credit is for the animated opening sequence to Disney’s Mr. Magoo in 1997, serving as a production manager. From there, it’s a jump to The Powerpuff Girls. Starting as a storyboard artist, she would also serve as a writer – incidentally, it’s hard not to read Twilight’s proclamation of “I don’t speak squirrel” in “Hurricane Fluttershy” as anything but a Powerpuff Girls throwback.

The all-around credentials led to her having a similar role on Dexter’s Laboratory (writer, art department), as well as an episode of The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy. Her website includes some interesting examples of her storyboarding work, which has more recently been seen on Foster’s Home for Imaginary Friends and Chowder. These gigs also introduced Cindy to her husband, Clayton Morrow, a similarly credential animation all-arounder. 

As with much of the writing cast, she was brought into Friendship is Magic from the get-go by Lauren Faust herself. She has been prolific with her work, writing the episodes “Griffon the Brush Off”, “Winter Wrap Up”, “The Show Stoppers”, “Owl’s Well That Ends Well”, “Sisterhooves Social”, “Family Appreciation Day”, “Read It and Weep”, and “Hurricane Fluttershy” over two seasons.

Morrow has stated she always looks to explore the flaws in characters, and that perfection is “boring”.

Exploring the Characters

The biggest word to explain Morrow’s writing style might be “perspective”. For nearly every episode listed above, one of Morrow’s central stylistic techniques is to focus in on one character at the center of the action – and to gain the understanding of the viewer. Even if they aren’t technically in every scene, she takes care to keep the focus on the emotional state of a given character as the plot unwinds.

“Hurricane Fluttershy” takes good care to allow the audience to internalize Fluttershy’s mental ups and downs – for instance, Rainbow Dash’s opening motivational speech is framed in terms of Fluttershy’s reaction, effectively labeling it as a cause of anxiety. A pointed Flight School flashback sequence, in line with the character as we understand her to this point, helps us to understand that this isn’t a random freakout, but an ingrained internal struggle for her. A surreal “all eyes on Fluttershy” sequence helps to bring us squarely into Fluttershy’s mindset at that particular moment. One could imagine the episode’s sequence of events shown through (for example) Rainbow Dash’s point of view would make Fluttershy’s hesitancy and refusals immensely irritating, and her actions seem more erratic. But Morrow explores Fluttershy’s flaws by examining where they’re coming from. By the time we reach the end of the episode, Fluttershy’s final moment of redemption – done with a still below average wing power score, as the episode has zero fear in pointing out – feels all the more important. This isn’t just because of the MacGuffin of getting the water to Cloudsdale, but because we fully understand how it functions as Fluttershy’s own, personal victory.

Even “Sisterhooves Social”, while technically splitting time between Sweetie Belle and Rarity, feels designed to be a tad more empathetic to Sweetie Belle’s point of view. Notice how the early events in the first act – outside of the (more sympathetic) Rarity cold open – play out with Sweetie Belle’s good-heartedness and intentions at the beginning of the scene, and Rarity’s horrified reactions (and reasoning behind them) coming afterwards. As with “Hurricane Fluttershy”, one could imagine that a minor change in tone, or even a minor change in the sequences of events as presented, could make Rarity’s frustrations a lot more relatable – and might make something like Sweetie Belle’s “I have no sister” moment feel more a lot more cold than it does in context.

The use of character perspective can also influence how other characters are portrayed: “Sisterhooves” portrays Applejack as a sturdy figure of an ideal sister situation for Rarity to live up to in Sweetie Belle’s eyes, later played for laughs with Sweetie Belle’s awkward ‘adoption’ move. In fact, Morrow’s episodes have an underlying current of finding strength through your friends, appropriate for the show. Given that Rarity ultimately redeems herself in Sweetie Belle’s eyes (partially with Applejack’s help), the use of Sweetie Belle’s mindset makes their reconciliation that much sweeter, and gives the moral an extra bit of weight.

Keeping It Funny

When it comes to comedy, Morrow often sticks to having fun with the quirks and traits of the characters. Most of the laughs in “Winter Wrap Up”, for instance, comes from the snide sarcasm of Spike, riffing off Twilight’s failures at fitting in. Or, during the Rarity sequence in that episode, Rarity’s compulsive insistence on perfecting the imperfect nest becomes a source of humor, on the basis that it’s just such a Rarity thing to do. Some of the humor in “Read It And Weep” comes from the absurdity of Rainbow Dash’s self-enforced ‘coolness’ code, where she works herself into such a mindset that a hospital break-in becomes logical.

Character-based comedy like this is useful, since it can easily intersect with her empathy-driven storylines. Consider the moment in the Pinkie-centric “Griffon the Brush Off” when Pinkie goes to the (to this point in the series, always reliable) Twilight Sparkle to discuss her Gilda situation. The audience has already seen Pinkie’s relationship with Rainbow Dash flourish, and has seen how Gilda has responded negatively and aggressively to Pinkie’s presence. Yet Twilight instead places the blame squarely on Pinkie, justifiably believing her to be overprotective of her friendship with Dash, and subsequently overreacting. An angry Pinkie simply can’t comprehend that Twilight could reach that conclusion, and stomps off – complete with an angry squeak. It’s at once an understandable Pinkie reaction that fuels her frustrations, and such a Twilight thing to do.

Beyond that, perhaps a bit surprisingly given her general style, Morrow episodes have a fair share of slapstick comedy. The third act of “Griffon the Brush Off” becomes a series of visual pranks; “The Show Stoppers” culminates in a horrific song spectacle matched with appropriate on-stage antics (in an episode that is very visual comedy based overall); even in season two, “Family Appreciation Day” includes the puppeted Granny Smith sequence that works mainly on the visual absurdity. Some of the credit here no doubt goes to the animation touches (her storyboarding background likely influences her writing, in knowing when to give them a chance to shine), a point that Morrow makes regularly.

Morrow appears to be a fan of properly hiding yourself behind an object. Or happened to have the same animator in similar scenes.

Compared to some of her colleagues, Morrow doesn’t give much time to wordplay – an occasional horse pun or play on words may show up, but it’s rarely a focus. She also tends to be pretty ‘grounded’ in her episodes, not spending much time in reference humor or getting too meta with the show’s stylings –leaving that territory to people like M.A. Larson. A notable exception is her repeated references to old-time film techniques: Rarity is often played for laughs via her most old Hollywood melodramatic personality quirks (including a direct Gone with the Wind reference in “Sisterhooves”); “Owl’s Well” includes a mustache-twirling Spike straight out of the silent film tradition; and a visual nod to old-time film appears in both “Hurricane Fluttershy” opening instructional video and Granny Smith’s flashback sequence in “Family Appreciation Day”.

As a writer, Morrow doesn’t seem afraid to slow down the pace to let the emotional weight of a scene take hold. In contrast to her colleague Amy Keating Rogers’ more comedic approach, emotional scenes are usually played in a straightforward manner, without a subsequent wink to the audience or gag ending. The Twilight-centric “Winter Wrap Up” enters its third act when Twilight, frustrated by her failure to fit in, makes a bad judgment call in using magic, and subsequently ruins Applejack’s snow clearing. Applejack replies with some justified anger, causing Twilight to cry and run away. The cut to commercial doesn’t include any pullback from the emotion of the scene.

Writing Quirks & Team Efforts

It would be a jump to credit a causal link, but the tendency for these more subtle, quiet moments have enabled another department to do some of their best work: the composers. To heighten the drama and emotional impact, these quieter moments are usually accompanied by some of the best material the music department has done. On her Twitter account – Morrow’s online presence is limited, but she joined Twitter on Amy Keating Rogers’ insistence – she is always quick to respond to praise by noting the nature of the group efforts behind the show. Quiet sequences such as these are a good example, playing to the essence of her writing style while gelling with the musical arrangements. If one were to coin a term to describe these scenes, “Morrow Moment” could be appropriate.

Examples include the reprise to the actual wrapping up of winter in “Winter Wrap Up”, Fluttershy’s weeping willow sequence (and, for that matter, maybe even the subsequent montage) in “Hurricane Fluttershy”. Perhaps the height of this creative partnership is the climax of “Family Appreciation Day”. Granny Smith’s story of Ponyville’s founding is what resolves Apple Bloom’s internal conflict for the episode – in one fell swoop, Granny wins over the class, Apple Bloom, and the episode’s audience. At the conclusion of her story, a great William Anderson composition plays out, and we’re given a speechless moment to take in the class’s reaction. Letting the plot linger on the emotion of the scene shows some confidence in the material, and gives it that much more weight.

Morrow isn’t preoccupied with worldbuilding – with the notable exception of an apparent interest in the world of the pegasi. She introduces the “Flight Camp” concept in “Griffon the Brush Off”, introduces us to the pegasi cyclone in “Winter Wrap Up” and repeats it in “Hurricane Fluttershy”. “Hurricane” also includes some hints at larger social traditions. Think of the celebratory single hoof stomp after the water is successfully transplanted, or the implied competitive nature of “wing power” amongst the non-Fluttershy pegasi. As of the conclusion of season 2, the nature of the modern pegasi world could stand to be explored, but Morrow certainly seems interested.

Two other small character notes: Morrow might have presented the single most overall positive portrayal of Rainbow Dash of any writer throughout her episodes. Dash is presented as a respected and well-liked pegasi leader in “Hurricane Fluttershy”, as well as a source of strength and good friend for Fluttershy; she’s a well-deserved object of Pinkie’s affection due to her pure coolness in “Griffon the Brush-Off” (Pinkie’s infatuation with Dash’s coolness comes up again in “Read it And Weep”); she’s able to overcome her own biases in “Read It And Weep”. Outside of a few light gags involving the dodging of friends (amusingly, this happens in both “Griffon” and “Read It And Weep”), the “jerk” portrayal of Rainbow Dash seen in some other episodes is avoided. Pinkie Pie is also much more appropriately grounded than in some other writers, as she usually finds humor in her personality quirks (think the “quiche” scene in “Owl’s Well”). Morrow also enjoys presenting Pinkie as rather socially intelligent. Consider how she knows that Fluttershy isn’t the right person to prank in “Griffon”, or how she able to quickly cheer Twilight up after she fails at ice skating.

Spike and Twilight’s relationship in Morrow episodes tends to be of the mother/son variety.

Finally, it’s hard not to reach the conclusion that Morrow has a soft spot for Spike. Maybe the unsung reliable companion’s role is inherently appealing to her style. Regardless, Spike makes an appearance in every Morrow episode with the exception of “Family Appreciation Day”. This includes episodes with no obvious Spike relation to the story, with Spike not only getting some screen time, but usually getting a solid gag – such as his childish candor in “Hurricane Fluttershy” and Twilight’s subsequent magic discipline.

When it comes to Spike’s relationship with Twilight, Morrow seems to favor the mother-son dynamic. This is the centerpiece of the often underrated “Owl’s Well That Ends Well”, in which Spike’s toddler behavior earns Twilight’s subsequent cold discipline. Spike’s lamentation of “Twilight doesn’t love me anymore” is comparably heavy stuff for the target audience. Spike’s attitude towards Twilight is also expressed cleverly by his pure hostility to Owlowiscious. Despite the character being, by design, un-emotive and seemingly without character, the perceived threat to his and Twilight’s relationship turns the owl into a major enemy for Spike – and, because the episode presents the situation through Spike’s point of view, the audience feels his pure antipathy.

Morrow’s show resume includes the noteworthy “Read It And Weep”, a bit of an odd inclusion for her style, given its large focus on a separate narrative which doesn’t involve the usual main characters. The “in universe” portions of the episode actually have a lot of the writing techniques discussed above: The episode takes lengths to present the situation as it is felt by Rainbow Dash – perhaps no more forcefully than during her attempts to kill time in the hospital, which takes up exactly 60 seconds of screen time. Dash’s inner conflict is presented and overcome in a positive manner – and she ultimately is relieved by an understanding Twilight Sparkle. Heck, Spike even meets his one-liner quota.

The Daring Do sequences are shot widescreen, an obvious allusion to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (itself a reference to the serial films of the 30s and 40s).

But honestly, it’s kind of hard to evaluate the ”Daring Do” portions of the episode in the context discussed here – it doesn’t just differ from Morrow’s usual style, but by design it differs from the style of the entire show. It does give another avenue for visual storytelling, and presents a fun little pulp-styled story independently. But overall, it’s hard to characterize in terms of her writing techniques. Perhaps this break from orthodoxy is the reason why Morrow has identified this as her favorite episode of the series that she has written. Or maybe she just digs adventure novels.

Beyond the out-of-universe portions of “Read It And Weep”, the one episode which seems uncharacteristic of her usual style would be “The Show Stoppers”. It’s perhaps her only episode without a direct character focus or point of reference, playing the Cutie Mark Crusaders for equal time without delving too deeply into their motivations. There’s little in the way of internal conflict, as it is another episode focused purely on the Cutie Mark Crusaders trying to gain their cutie marks. If anything, the episode might be the biggest example of Morrow’s use of slapstick humor. As noted earlier, the episode is based highly in visual comedy, most notably the extended “cutie mark crusading” sequence, complete with memorable tune. There’s very little substantive main six interaction: Twilight appears mainly because season one seemed to shoehorn her in every episode, and Applejack’s role is largely tertiary. It’s also worth noticing that the concept of Sweetie Belle trying to impress her sister storyline, explored more forcefully in “Sisterhooves Social”, makes a strong appearance here. But if there’s an outlier to the stylistic points discussed in this article, it’s probably this episode.

Looking Forward

When it comes to getting the audience into the mind of a character, and not only showing their trials and triumphs but understanding them, Morrow might at the very heart of what makes Friendship is Magic stand out. She will continue her involvement with the show into season 3, but given her new gig at Care Bears: Welcome to Care-a-Lot, season 4 will likely take place without her. Fans are encouraged to enjoy her stylings while they last.

Joining the ranks of some of her colleagues, Morrow will be making her first pony-related convention appearance at Equestria LA at the beginning of November, where she will hopefully be able to give some insight into her writing style, the emergence of the new fandom, and her hopes for the future. Cindy’s contributions to the show are long, and we’ve been happy to take a look back at them. 

Share your thoughts

  1. “My Little Pony Friendship is Magic is, first and foremost, a comedy, and most of the audience is primarily there to get some good laughs from the adventures of our equine heroines.” Even though I find it funny at times I personally strongly disagree with this statement. I do not watch MLP as a comedy show anymore than I used to watch Star Trek as a comedy show. To me I watch it as a combination of Si-Fi and fantasy, any comedy is incidental. Just so long as there is no violence I am fine. If comedy is what people watch the show for I genuinely feel sorry for them.

    • That’s funny, because I’d say easily the majority of people watch it for the comedy(ever seen a live-screening?) and the creators intended it to be comedy with some fantasy sprinkled in, and the worldbuilding is mostly incidental.

  2. While Meghan McCarthy has written the most consistently excellent episodes of the series to me on the whole (bar A Canterlot Wedding’s major writing problems), Morrow is certainly my second favourite. Not only are Sisterhooves Social and Hurricane Fluttershy among my absolute favourites of the series, there’s a lot to like in her other episodes as well, even in the ones that perhaps don’t work all the way around. And I think it is precisely because of her more straight edge in dealing with emotional subjects than purely comedy, with more focus on the characters’ emotional lives instead of necessarily the situations they’re in.

    It’s these forays into the emotional life of Fluttershy, or Rainbow Dash getting over her own prejudices (even if this makes the Daring Do scenes by comparison a bit frustrating since I always want to get back to following Dash), Twilight getting to have a better understanding of the things she really is good at, Spike ending up in the throws of jealousy over a rival, or Pinkie having to deal with a bully, that I find personally much more satisfying than random slapstick antics. All in all, it’s no surprise that she tends to clock rather high in my personal likes than many of the other writers, apart from the aforementioned Meghan McCarthy, who also tends to focus a lot more on the psychology end of the spectrum than simple comedy.

  3. Pingback: TRS Round Table 003: One Bad Apple | The Round Stable